More Scenes From the Storm in a Teacup, II

I just heard* that at 9:00pm Chicago time, there will be a discussion between Lee Smolin and Jeff Harvey, presumably about string theory, and you can listen to it live on radio station WGN, here.

Thinks:

  • I wonder if it will be as utterly content-free and pointless as the one that took place between Lee Smolin and Brian Greene on Science Friday some weeks back? That one was so annoying in places that I never finished the blog post I was writing about it. It was mostly of the following structure (I paraphrase):

    Lee says wise and learned things like “there should be a diversity of effort in approaching problems in fundamental physics”.

    The host, Ira Flatow, turns to Brian (on telephone link) and says “what do you think of that, Brian Greene?”

    Brian says, “Yes, I agree. I have several students working on things outside of string theory.”

    …thus blowing a bit of a hole in the claim that string theory is this cult/monolith that somehow blinds us all to other great ideas.

  • I wonder if Lee will bring out what I consider to be one of the most ridiculous things I’ve heard said by him (or anyone else) in this largely-media-and-self-interest-driven “debate” spawned by his and Peter Woit’s books. Paraphrasing: A good idea has about ten years to come to fruition, and then if it does not, it is wrong and should be thrown out.

    Lee does say some wise (if mostly obvious) things about the field from time to time – some of which are well worth remembering, and sometimes it comes from his knowledge of how things have worked in physics in the past. Yes, we should remember our history….. but this statement seems to spectacularly ignore history and ranks right at the far opposite end of the scale of “wise things”. Ten years?! And even if you could put a time to it… is this what we are telling the general public about the way we do science? By putting time limits on ideas?

Overall, this storm in a teacup -which will continue, because the media only wants to hear an “underdog” story right now, whether or not it reflects what is going on in the research itself- is simply poisoning the well for everyone, whether they do string theory or not. See here.

Lee and Peter, I agree that string theory is often over-hyped, and has been for some years now (let us not forget, by the way, that it is the same media who helped out with that hype who is helping to drive the new anti-string hype -classic bait and switch-) and that it has made some physicists working in the field a bit annoyed. But here is how not to fight against that: Counter-hype.

Remember:

  • An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves everyone blind and sucking up their favourite meals through a straw.
  • Fighting fire with fire leads to everything burning.

-cvj

(* Thanks, Nick!)

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24 Responses to More Scenes From the Storm in a Teacup, II

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  3. Moshe says:

    Hi Clifford, seems I missed a good show, I am sure Jeff did a superb job. I was also surprised at the 10 year figure, does not seem like something coming out of a long train of thought… and aren’t the Ashtekar-Sen variables, the beginning of LQG, roughly 35 years old? (not to mention the numerous other attempts to quantize pure gravity directly, I learned from Lee that the first attempt was in the 30s).

  4. Ambitwistor says:

    The Ashtekar variables published in 1986, IIRC; can’t remember when Sen published his result. Even if you count loop quantum gravity as starting with Lee’s paper on the loop representation, that’s still 1988, making LQG 18 years old. I would not claim that LQG has “come to fruition” in that time to a greater extent than string theory has.

  5. Moshe says:

    Yeah, OK, sophisticated mathemtics early in the morning, sorry…

  6. Clifford,

    What I have not seen, from you or any other main stream string theorist, is a detailed critique of either Lee Smolin’s argument or Peter Woit’s. I’ve seen nit picking and name calling, but nothing addressing their major arguments in a point by point fashion. The unanswered arguments that impressed me were: a) String Theory makes no unambiguous predictions that we can reasonably hope to test, b) String Theorists have gotten in the habit of claiming things that they cannot clearly demonstrate, like finiteness, or even convergence of the perturbation theory, c) Unless a way can be found beyond the landscape, ST will probably never make a testable prediction.

    BTW, Peter “guesses” that you might be the author of one of the negative CUP reviews of his manuscript. Are you willing to confirm or deny?

  7. Clifford says:

    Hi CapitalistImperialistPig,

    Well I would say that you’re not reading in detail. I think I addressed points a) and c) as well as I can (before the unfinished research is finished) in two or three comments on the thread of the post here.
    (For example, this one.) And since the arguments have not actually evolved any since August 2005, please see the responses to those same questions I made on the thread of this post (in comments numbered in the late 30s and early 40s or so).

    The key point there is that (1) It is ongoing research, and (2) Nobody knows one way or the other about the testability of string theory, or – if tests could be found – whether it is right or wrong. We are still developing it. So Peter and Lee cannot claim to know the answer either. That’s my central point. I am not claiming I know the answer either.

    About b) I’m not sure exactly which computation you are talking about. Do you mean regulating and computing the sum over metrics properly at arbitrary genus? I cannot give you a reference pointing to a general proof since I do not know if there is one. I can think of several examples where we know it is well-defined. The neatest method, in my point of view, is to use a matrix model. Others may have more references. By the way, did Aaron Bergman not write an extensive point by point discussion of Peter’s book? It’s not clear to me what it has to do with the central point I am trying to make: String theory is a subjectt hat is still being developed. Nobody knows where it is going to go. It is irresponsible to claim otherwise.

    As for the other thing about Peter’s guesswork… that’s all just silly and irrelevant.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  8. Clifford says:

    See also a comment from Jacques Distler on the other thread, here. Best to follow up to us, if you want to, over on that thread where the rest of the conversation is.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

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  10. Clifford,

    Thanks much for the pointer to the wonderful discussion on the other (Cosmic Variance) thread. Very illuminating!

  11. Clifford says:

    Yes… notice how extraordinarily similar it is to the one that is being had now. It was August 2005. This is part of my frustration. All these questions have been asked and answered. All the lack of substance in Peter’s claims brought out there…… but still we have these conversations again and again, because he seems to forget….

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  12. AnInvestmentBanker says:

    To say that the perturbative series in string theory is no worse than any interesting QFT is more than misleading, isn’t it? The point being made by Woit and Smolin is not that the series diverges, as all asymptotic series do, but each individual term has not been proven finite beyond the second order. Do you have any real argument against that?

    Coming back to my area of expertise, string theorists have cost the public (including the government and various foundations and institutions) well over $2bn by conservative estimate. Claiming that more efforts are required before the investment will see any accountable returns is just plainly no good. I did not believe Jeff Skilling when he asked for patience on a 2-year project, and I find it offensive that string theorists beg for tax-payer patience after 22 years. In fact, there has been no other project in human history costing this much and taking this long without generating concrete results. Maybe someone can enlighten me why this line of thought is along the wrong direction, but I doubt it.

  13. The point being made by Woit and Smolin is not that the series diverges, as all asymptotic series do, but each individual term has not been proven finite beyond the second order. Do you have any real argument against that?

    See this comment thread.

    (There! This time, I managed to post to the right comment thread, unlike the previous attemptstring theorists have cost the public (including the government and various foundations and institutions) well over $2bn by conservative estimate.

    You figure that funding for string theory research has averaged $100 million/year? Wow! I wish! Even if you lumped all of particle theory together and called it “string theory” (which would certainly be incorrect), you’d be off by an order of magnitude.

    But let’s not quibble about that.

    How much do you think ought to be spent on string theory research? I presume, from the fact that you’re “offended,” that the answer is “Not much.”

    How about the rest of particle theory? Cosmology? Mathematics?

  14. why bother says:

    >All these questions have been asked and answered. All the lack of substance in Peter’s claims brought out there…… but still we have these conversations again and again, because he seems to forget….

    Are you really so naive? As if a honest concern about particle physics would be the driving force behind this campaign. No, there is no will to understand anything, therefore any discussion is pointless.
    It is is simply about annoying and besmirching the work of other people, much like graffiti sprayers coming out the moment there is a new building to victimize.

  15. Clifford says:

    Are you really so naive?

    I try to retain a degree of naivety – to give people the benefit of the doubt – as long as I can. I did so for a long while in this case, trying over the last year to hear the arguments, assess the content, answer the points one by one….. but as you can tell from these recent posts, and from my comments in them: Yes, I’ve given up on that.

    But to do nothing at all while an entire field’s work is misrepresented and dragged in the dirt…. This seems wrong too.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  16. AnInvestmentBanker says:

    Since physics professors are not known to have real-life business experience, I understand your surprise at the $2bn number. Let’s start by estimating the “overhead” per person per year. For an entry-level employee (i.e. college graduates) making $50k annual salary in a Fortune 500 company, this number varies from $100k in rural Arkansas to $300k in downtown Manhattan. This money covers the office lease, furniture, maintenance, utilities, IT and administrative support, and most significant of all, benefits and insurances. To think that the universities can provide such services more efficiently than for-profit organizations is unrealistic. It is simply hidden deeper in accounting at educational institutions. I take the average ($200k) and add the base salary ($50k) to arrive at $250k total cost. To be conservative, I ignore the DOE and NSF grants. The cost of postdocs and graduate students are approximately set at zero (probably not a bad approximation anyway). The total direct cost for 22 years of string dominance is then $250k*22*X, where X is the number of string faculty members worldwide, which I estimate to be 500. As you can see, the number is actually closer to $3bn. If X is really 300, then the direct cost is just under $2bn. In any case, I think I got the order of magnitude right.

    By the way, I have hired dozens of fresh physics/math PhDs (without any finance background) for the past ten years. The first year total compensation for 2006 is over $150k (plus $300k overhead). Several of them have moved on to make a lot more. If you use the lost earning for all the string theorists (including graduate students) to estimate a lower bound on the opportunity cost of string theory, the result would have been an order of magnitude HIGHER than $2bn. But I admit that this is misleading, because string theory has done much over a generation to drive entrepreneurial realists out of physics into the real world and thus contributed positively overall to the wellbeing of mankind by advancing our knowledge in finance, for example. Without string, we might or might not have a better understanding of the universe, but the world would surely have fewer billionaire/millionaire ex-physicists.

  17. ince physics professors are not known to have real-life business experience, I understand your surprise at the $2bn number. Let’s start by estimating the “overhead” per person per year.

    Oh. Wait. You’re not counting research funding for string theorists. You’re counting their academic salaries (and the overhead thereon), for which they are responsible for teaching and other academic duties.

    Obviously, you arrive at a much higher (but totally irrelevant) figure.

    When you talk about what “string theorists have cost the public”, it is reasonable to assume that you are talking about the money that was spent supporting their research, not the money spent remunerating them for teach Physics 101.

  18. AnInvestmentBanker says:

    Since the salary is only 20% of the sum, I consider it a high-order correction that does not deserve much fuss. DOE and NFS together provide $30mn in annual research grants to fundamental theoretical physics, which in recent years means string. Did Brian Green like to say that string is the only game in town? Divide $30mn by 500, you have $60k a year per faculty member, greater than the salary number in dispute.

    In any case, I could not have gotten it wrong by more than a factor of 3, which is the same as 1 in physics.

  19. DOE and NFS together provide $30mn in annual research grants to fundamental theoretical physics, which in recent years means string.

    You are joking, right? You’re lumping all of theoretical physics together and calling it “string theory”?

    I asked you before

    How much do you think ought to be spent on string theory research? I presume, from the fact that you’re “offended,” that the answer is “Not much.”
    How about the rest of particle theory? Cosmology? Mathematics?

    Clearly, I was making a mistake in trying to draw such fine distinctions. Evidently, from over there in Investment-Banking-Land, it all looks like string theory to you.

    (Just FYI, since you probably don’t know these things, the grant figures you cite, include overhead paid to the Universities. Usually, that overhead rate is about 50% The researchers only see a fraction of the money.)

  20. AnInvestmentBanker says:

    Well, thank you for the additional details, but it does not change the conclusion. Whatever the university chares, it does not cover the REAL overheads, unless you accept the thesis that no-profit organizations do a better job at cost control than for-profit ones. Since the overheads amount to 80% of my estimate, you have not offered anything of substance.

    Also, the salary is for the faculty job, which is given for your research (more accurately, publications). Any argument otherwise is dishonest. Are you telling me that UT hired you on your teaching ability? I don’t think Prof. Weinberg even bothered to look at student feedback when he decided who to hire, and I would be very surprised if any of the recommendation letter for you contains more than a passing mention of your teaching experience if you had any at all.

  21. Since the overheads amount to 80% of my estimate…

    80% or 50% overhead, you are still off by an order of magnitude.

    Also, the salary is for the faculty job, which is given for your research…

    Regardless of whether I ever did another lick of research, or whether I shifted to working on an utterly different subject, the University would still need my services to teach classes, advise students, etc, etc. So, counting my professorial salary, and every penny of overhead on it, as “support of string theory research” is ludicrous.

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